By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
”They bleeped it! How can they bleep it? But they gone and done it anyway!“
On a sodden London morning, actor Ray Winstone shudders at the memory of a TV edit of The Long Good Friday, John MacKenzie‘s seminal portrait of late 1970s British gangland. ”Every swear word,“ he exclaims, ”bleeped! Then, the week after, there’s a Laurence Olivier film, and he comes on and says ‘fuck.’ But that‘s all right, innit? ’Cause he says it in a nicer way. I mean . . . what‘s that all about?“
The answer, of course, is class: the fulcrum of British life and defining motif of Winstone’s career. It‘s the first thing that hits you when he opens his mouth, the treacle-thick cadence of a childhood spent in the urban marshland of Hackney, east London: a familiar, evocative sound to British moviegoers for whom Winstone, with his drawn-out consonants and bruiser’s face, has become a kind of universal surrogate uncle -- if not, as yet, to their U.S. counterparts. Except, having found his second great role (the first coming in Gary Oldman‘s scabrous Nil by Mouth), that situation may be set to change.
The name of the film is Sexy Beast. Now, there are a couple of bad omens here. For a start, it was made by an ad man, Jonathan Glazer, best known in the U.K. for his monochrome shills for Guinness (Winstone, conversely, is currently hawking bottled lager). Secondly, it is a British gangster movie cut, ostensibly, from the same stylized cloth as the grating Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Yet, defying the odds, Glazer’s debut -- in which a leathery, bullnecked Winstone dazzles as reformed thief Gary ”Gal“ Dove, desperate to remain in his expat Spanish idyll rather than be forced home for the proverbial one last job -- proves a supple, witty piece of comic drama.
Mention you like it, however, and its star shrinks into his thickset frame. Indeed, for those who have only witnessed him, as he puts it, ”screaming and punching“ onscreen, the entire Winstone experience could come as a shock, his heavy build folded neatly into itself, the conversation soft and courteous. ”Thanks very much. Really. But Jon‘s a good boy, you know? A talented boy. So credit to him.“
You might think his approach false modesty. Then again, given that his professional baptism came with Alan Clarke, the iconic dramatist whose death in 1990 robbed British cinema of perhaps its finest talent, you’re tempted to listen when Winstone doles out the plaudits. His break came in 1977, at 19, with London deep in punk and recession. An unlikely recruit to drama school (his greengrocer father also being an inveterate film buff), his tenure lasted a single troubled year. Signing off by sabotaging the headmistress‘s car, he returned to meet a friend and wound up auditioning for Clarke, then preparing Scum, a reform school--set play for the BBC. Searching for his central hard case, Clarke needed just one look at Winstone. For once, there’s a literal truth behind the cliche: Rather than hearing him read, Clarke cast his lead after watching him swagger down the corridor.
”Yeah, I was boxing at the time,“ Winstone explains, ”and when you‘re boxing, you’ve got a little bounce in your step.“ (His pugilistic career, of which he says, ”I done all right,“ saw him become London schoolboy champion on three occasions.) The eventual result of that hallway stroll was a brutal expose of the worst the British juvenile-justice system had to offer. Predictably, it was swiftly banned, languishing unseen while its star ”gave the game up as a bad joke.“ Then, unexpectedly, a feature version was commissioned and Winstone duly rehired. Two decades on, the movie still shimmers with a diamond-hard ferocity.
Yet despite the raw charisma of his perform-ance, Winstone‘s career sputtered. During a lean period even by British standards, an actor this unaffected, with his kind of accent, was never going to impress the cerebral Jarmans and Greenaways that dominated U.K. cinema in the ’80s and early ‘90s. Instead, he picked up TV gigs until, by the mid-’80s (having gone bankrupt twice), he quit again. ”It got to the stage,“ he says, ”where I saw a couple of things I was in, and all I could think was ‘My God -- that’s diabolical.‘“ For three years, he simply ”floated about.“ Yet ask if he missed the business, and you get an answer that would sound hokey from any other actor. ”Nah. I mean, I’ve never been an ambitious man. It‘s less stressful like that -- a script comes in, and you think, ’Oh, I like that, I‘ll do that.’ Or you think it‘s an important subject.“
Which brings us to Nil by Mouth, the pinnacle (thus far) of Winstone’s professional life. Having returned to acting -- driven largely by his failure to find anything he preferred -- with a small part in Ken Loach‘s Ladybird Ladybird, it fell to Gary Oldman, another working-class alum of Clarke, to grant him a showcase. The role was that of an abusive alcoholic in the director’s autobiographical study of south London family life -- a dark, corrosive film, shorn of British social realism‘s usual didactic urge, in which Winstone’s turn became the primal heartbeat. Although he blanches at them, comparisons with De Niro in Raging Bull are not exaggerated.
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